Florida won’t vote on legalizing pot this year

“The narrow time frame to submit and verify those signatures has prompted our committee to shift focus,” said Make it Legal Florida Chairman Nick Hansen, of medical marijuana company MedMen.
A man smokes marijuana recreationally in Toronto in 2003.
A man smokes marijuana recreationally in Toronto in 2003. [ KEVIN FRAYER | Associated Press/Canadian Press ]
Published Jan. 13, 2020|Updated Jan. 13, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — Voters will not vote to legalize recreational marijuana in Florida this year.

After a brief but expensive campaign, the Make it Legal Florida political committee ended its effort Monday to get recreational marijuana on the 2020 ballot. The campaign, which raised over $8.7 million in primarily marijuana industry money since it launched in August, has spent $7.7 million on the effort.

In December alone, the committee raised more than $4.8 million, according to a newly filed campaign finance report. The bulk of the contributions came from medical marijuana companies MedMen and Surterra, which does business as Parallel.

The signed petitions, which are valid for two years, will be used for a 2022 ballot initiative campaign.

“The narrow time frame to submit and verify those signatures has prompted our committee to shift focus,” said Make it Legal Florida Chairman Nick Hansen, of medical marijuana company MedMen. “We’re looking forward to Supreme Court review of our efforts and working in collaboration with state leaders to ensure the super majority of Floridians’ voices are heard.”

The campaign not only had the support of top marijuana companies but also celebrity endorsements from enthusiasts like Jimmy Buffett.

According to Make it Legal Florida’s proposed ballot language, the amendment would allow adults 21 or older to have, use, purchase and transport up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana and paraphernalia. It also gives existing medical marijuana treatment centers in the state the right to sell marijuana and other accessories if clearly labeled and enclosed in childproof packaging.

The state had verified 295,072 signed petitions from Make It Legal Florida as of Monday, according to the Division of Elections website. That’s just 38% of the total signatures needed by Feb. 1. Hansen said the group had gathered 700,000 signed petitions for the effort.

In a series of messages to paid petition gatherers late Sunday night into early Monday morning, a petition company manager wrote: “Unfortunately the Make it Legal campaign is wrapping up early, effective immediately ... we are extremely grateful for your hard work and dedication.”

Since the campaign started last summer, the effort has been bogged down by a new elections law that went into effect in July. The new law changed the state elections website format, set tight deadlines for turning in signatures and required hourly pay for petition workers, Make it Legal recently filed a lawsuit seeking more time to submit petition signatures to get on the November ballot.

The lawsuit, filed in Leon County Circuit Court at the end of December, asked for more time to submit petition signatures. Make it Legal Florida alleged that the new election law was unconstitutional and placed undue restrictions on the ballot initiative process. The group also alleges that the nearly two months of glitches that came with a newly created state web portal to register paid petition gatherers was detrimental to the petition effort.

Soon after, state leaders and industry associations came out against the ballot initiative.

In a deluge of briefs filed last Monday night, the Florida House, Senate, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and a number of other groups came out in opposition to a ballot initiative to let voters decide to allow adult use marijuana in 2020, according to briefs filed with the state Supreme Court.

Republican senator files new legislation

The end of the effort marks the beginning of a new one.

Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes, of St. Petersburg, filed a bill Monday that legalizes marijuana for adult use and breaks down the current “vertical integration” structure by allowing contracting and wholesaling by growers to processors or retailers. Under the current law licenseholders are responsible for all business, from “seed to sale.”

A lawsuit challenging the vertical integration model is set to go before the Florida Supreme Court this year.

Brandes’ bill would also expunge low-level criminal records and study the impact of home-grown marijuana.

“More harm has been caused by the prohibition of marijuana than by marijuana itself,” Brandes said. “I believe decriminalizing marijuana will enable law enforcement to deal with more serious crimes and allow them to have a greater impact in our communities with their limited resources.

Later Monday, a House companion bill was filed by Orlando Democrat Carlos Guillermo Smith.

Make it Legal Florida’s effort was not the first to fizzle for the 2020 election. Last month organizers of Regulate Florida, a similar petition that would allow for people to grow marijuana at home, announced that they would not be able to collect enough signatures in time for the February 1 deadline.